The second lesson from history is how quickly such measures can be accepted as necessary, even “natural.” That ordinary people of any ethnicity or nationality can partake in and support evil actions at any time is not news to historians. The blithe assurance of top advisers like Stephen Miller and senior bureaucrats like Kirstjen Nielsen who devise cruel policies to suit the needs of the system they’re working within, and implement them seemingly without thought, recalls Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” More shocking is that many border patrol agents appear not only to be following orders but, according to a recent ProPublica report, have paraded their own racist, misogynistic, and sadistic tendencies in Facebook posts. That the Trump administration has announced new nationwide raids by ICE agents recalls the kidnappings and roundups by nineteenth-century slave-catchers and federal marshals.
The out-group mentality is always a danger, but there are still individuals who, regardless of race and ethnicity, do not accept or support their government’s unjust and inhumane policies. If the history of slavery and the fight against it has taught us something, it is that racial proscriptions and divisions suit those who seek to dehumanize and exploit people they construe as the other. For this reason, the interracial nineteenth-century abolition movement can provide valuable inspiration to those involved in today’s efforts to provide humanitarian aid to migrants and refugees and to resist the threatened descent into authoritarianism, mass atrocity, and inhumanity.
The 1793 federal Fugitive Slave Act required Northern free states to return runaway slaves to Southern slaveholders, enforcing the fugitive slave clause of the US Constitution. By the turn of the nineteenth century, free blacks and mostly Quaker abolitionists resisted the implementation of the fugitive slave law by forming humane societies to prevent the kidnapping of free blacks, as well as fugitive slave rendition. Northern states such as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York passed personal liberty laws guaranteeing the due process of law and trial by jury for suspected fugitives.
The plight of today’s “Dreamers” and citizens and legal immigrants married to undocumented immigrants is comparable to the status of runaway slaves who married free blacks and raised children in free states.
The prosecutions of those rendering aid to migrants and refugees across Europe and America demand that we extend anew our moral imaginations and recommit ourselves to universal human rights and democracy. The abolitionists’ protests against the fugitive slave laws, which deprived large groups of people of their liberty and criminalized those who offered assistance to them, should be an inspiration in our dismal times.
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